How the men's Royal Rumble could shake out, from Nakamura to Reigns and beyond

When you sit back and think about it, it seems hard to believe that it has been three decades since Hacksaw Jim Duggan won the inaugural Royal Rumble match. Of course, that one consisted of only 20 performers, and there wasn't a world title shot attached, but it set the tone for everything that followed.

Since that point, we've seen all kinds of twists, turns and surprises. How about Edge winning in 2010, when he had just come back from a torn Achilles? He wasn't on anyone's radar. And the next year, Alberto Del Rio was the last man standing. What? Del Rio had hardly made a mark in the WWE by that point, yet he'd go on to become a four-time world champion.

The bottom line is that the format of this match lends itself to chaos, and while certain outcomes seem likelier than others, the potential for a longer shot to come in and win is as strong as it has been in quite some time heading into Sunday's match.

Between the front-runners and the long shots, the possibilities for the 30-man field vary wildly depending on the direction WWE is looking to go in. For every reason someone could win, there are at least as many ways it could be argued in the opposite direction -- and for your convenience, we've done all that work for you so that you can make your own educated choice.

The four 'no-doubt' contenders

Shinsuke Nakamura

Why he will win: Nakamura is closing in on a year since joining SmackDown. His ascent has not been rushed, which is generally a smart booking strategy, but we're at the point now where this uber-popular performer has to elevate his in-ring status before he loses momentum. Nakamura is closing in on 38 years old, and while many WWE stars have thrived into their 40s and even their 50s, it's paramount that the creative forces of WWE capitalize on his presence while he's at the apex of his career.

Nakamura is a great showman, but he also has a unique combo of charisma and athleticism that makes him a headline-worthy contender. And let's not forget, a Nakamura win at the Rumble could mean a date with fellow former New Japan Pro Wrestling star AJ Styles at WrestleMania. That'd be pretty sweet -- too sweet, in fact.

Why he won't win: Look, Styles-Nakamura could happen at WrestleMania even if Nakamura fails to win the Rumble. Without a title on the line the stakes would be lower, but the fans would be just as geeked up. Truth is, Nakamura winning would hardly be a surprise to anyone, so the WWE might very well be considering a more eye-popping result.

If he doesn't, then ...: Like we said, there's no reason a Nakamura-Styles rivalry can't still happen, title or no title. They're both going to be in need of new foes once the Rumble ends and neither can afford to take on someone will less cachet heading into WrestleMania. Still, Nakamura needs a big-time win -- and he needs one soon.

Finn Balor

Why he will win: Balor has finally regained his mojo. Outside of a memorable showdown against Styles at TLC, Balor was arguably the biggest disappointment in all of the WWE in 2017. But on New Year's Day, everything changed when he hooked up with former Bullet Club teammates Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows -- a reunion that immediately paid off on Raw. They have great chemistry and they've instantly become a main event-level attraction.

That kind of popularity boost is all well and good, but Balor still needs to establish himself as a bona fide singles star -- something we saw, if only for a short period of time, in 2016 before he was injured at SummerSlam. Balor could win the Rumble and set up a showdown with Brock Lesnar, or perhaps even Braun Strowman in New Orleans. Either way, the David vs. Goliath matchup would make WrestleMania more must-see TV than it already is.

Why he won't win: The reunion with Gallows and Anderson is working and taking Balor out of the mix would hurt all three guys in the short-term. Sure, he could continue to hang with them, but that seems a more heelish tendency and WWE has been apprehensive of something like that for Balor in the past; if he dropped them, Gallows and Anderson could be in real trouble, as we saw during a severely underwhelming stretch after the came over from Japan with some fire behind them. It might be wise to let all three build on their momentum for a while. How about another Balor Club vs. The Shield/Jason Jordan bout? Seems like a smart play.

If he doesn't, then ...: All good, for now. Balor needed a 180, and he got it. He has a fresh storyline to work with, and no doubt he'll capitalize on it. Looking longer term, though, Balor is going to have to re-establish himself as a standout solo act. But that can wait until SummerSlam, at least, and that might be a fitting setting for a major statement two years after the joy and disappointment of his title win in 2016.

John Cena

Why he will win: Well, he's John Cena -- what more is there to say? Love him, hate him, not sure how you feel about him? Doesn't matter. His popularity extends well beyond WWE borders. He can singlehandedly market the company's brand more than anyone in the business, which means more exposure and more fans in attendance. A Cena win, which would make him just the second man in history (along with Stone Cold Steve Austin) to win three Royal Rumbles, would likely set up a titanic clash against Lesnar at WresleMania -- their first meaningful bout since SummerSlam in 2014. There's also a chance of revisiting a Styles rivalry that did wonders for both men. Add in the fact that a win on the grandest stage of them all would give Cena the all-time record for most world title reigns in WWE history. At some point, he's going to get that record -- it's just a matter of when.

Why he won't win: To an extent, Cena has largely been used as a marketing ploy for the reasons listed above. When his name is called at the Rumble, fans will react loudly. A year ago, Cena won his most recent WWE championship at this event against Styles, but it has been clear since that point that his various other obligations won't allow him to appear on television on a regular basis, nor do these circumstances give him time to build any kind of visceral rivalry up from scratch. Anything he does from this point forward will be put together hastily, a la his meeting with Roman Reigns at No Mercy toward the end of last year. Two polarizing legends and one subpar match. It just didn't work. This is the most important time of the year in the WWE, and the ramifications need to be significant.

If he doesn't, then ...: Cena goes on with his Hollywood-laden existence and lives the dream. He'll find a showcase of some kind at WrestleMania 34, regardless.

Roman Reigns

Why he will win: Here's the thing -- Reigns isn't officially on the 30-man list of participants, but considering he just lost his Intercontinental title this past Monday, he almost certainly will be in the field. It goes without saying that the creative team has had a long-term plan in place for Reigns for quite some time. It has been long-rumored that he would duke it out with Lesnar at WrestleMania 34. It's far from the most appealing matchup for certain segments of fans, but one that is a possible, even probable outcome that would put two of WWE's headliners on a collision course.

The WWE has embraced the extreme heat that Reigns garners from certain crowds -- heat that really started to reach its peak when he was pelted with jeers following his Rumble win in Philadelphia. Fans wouldn't even stop booing when The Rock got into the ring and raised his hand. Imagine the response if he did it again, three years later, in the same building? As long as there isn't a riot, angry fans in Philadelphia and throughout the world would also probably still tune into Raw the next day (or attend the show) to see what Reigns has to say. You might not admit it, but you can't get enough of him.

Why he won't win: Whether he wins or not, Reigns is all but guaranteed to hang around until the end of the match, simply because of how strong the reaction to the potential of a repeat win would be. Imagine the unruly Philly crowd cringing, maybe even crying, as Reigns stands in the ring seemingly ready to win his second Rumble. Except he doesn't. Nakamura, or Balor could eliminate him or, who knows, maybe even Rusev gets his long-awaited revenge for the 2015 and 2016 Rumbles by tossing Reigns over the top rope. Reigns has so many options to turn to if he fails to win the Rumble, whether it's turning back toward The Miz again, reuniting part of The Shield or any of a half-dozen other strong possibilities. He'll be at or near the top of the marquee at WrestleMania 34, no matter what.

If he doesn't then ...: He probably finds a way to WrestleMania anyway. Maybe he's part of another triple-threat with Lesnar and Strowman, or Balor or Cena. Or maybe he squares off with Jason Jordan. That'd be something. Whatever the outcome is, Reigns will have a big role to play in New Orleans.

The two 'this-wouldn't-totally-stun-us' possibilities

With so much uncertainty, this could be the year to make a star by capitalizing on fan sentiment in some way. Two guys that come to mind ...

Rusev

Why he will win: Because it's Rusev Day! C'mon, no one has been a more shocking revelation than the rebranding of Rusev, which had to be something of a joke the first time it landed on TV. But it has caught on. People cannot get enough of him. In a roundabout way, this was only fair for Rusev. He was an indefatigable force when he came to the WWE, cobbling together a long winning streak and ultimately snaring the United States championship. But long story short, the League of Nations happened in 2016, then an injury and a trade to SmackDown Live. Rusev was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. But his partnership with Aiden English has evolved from goofball status to one of the main attractions on SmackDown. He's an extremely gifted athlete for someone his size, and he needs a breakout moment to capitalize on his current popularity. Why not the Rumble?

Why he won't win: It doesn't seem like the decision-makers have bought into his rise in popularity from the fans, which is too bad. Outside of Styles and the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn combo, SmackDown doesn't have a roster rife with stars that seem like championship-caliber material right now. Plus, the dynamic between Rusev and English is magical, and changing their dynamic so that Rusev can take the next step in his singles career might seem rushed. And who knows? Rusev and English could be tag team champs in 2018.

If he doesn't then ...: He'll be fine where he is, with the caveat that Rusev and English have to stop losing on SmackDown. Whether a straight tag-team match, triple-threat or fatal 4-way, Rusev and English have dropped their past five televised matches. It's a far cry from where they were at their peak, but the fans are still into it.

Elias

Why he will win: Take Rusev, replace him with Elias, and voila ... we pretty much have the same scenario. No, we're not talking about injuries or The League of Nations, but a character that was essentially a tongue-in-cheek joke who made fun of people in songs has morphed into one of the best acts every week on Monday Night Raw. Like Rusev, Elias doesn't win a lot, although he got the upper hand on Cena at Raw's 25th anniversary show. And like Rusev, it's a shame. The guy has the look, the charisma and the overall X factor. Why not build up this hidden gem and give the WWE Universe a surprise, if not welcome, win from an entertaining performer who is growing in popularity by the week? Is that too much to ask?

Why he won't win: It's a stretch to go from a de-facto halftime act to the winner of one of the most prestigious events of the year. But hey, Leiceister City won the English Premier League, Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, Holly Holm took care of Ronda Rousey, the Miracle on Ice and all that. Upsets happen. It just that Elias isn't quite ready to pull off that kind of shock result ... yet.

If he doesn't then ...: He'll play his guitar and make everyone happy. We'll walk with Elias. Enough said.